What Is Agile? It Ain't No Big Thing

Agile isn't a system that rolls out "transformations" turning project managers into Scrum Masters. Find out from Bob Dobson what Agile really means.

During a recent Agile coaching engagement I overheard this comment: "Agile isn't a big thing." This viewpoint was clearly negative, as in: "Agile isn't any different than anything else." To provide context around this comment, it was mentioned in relationship to the scope of an Agile Transformation in its pilot stage; this is the part of a transformation where we work to share the vision and provide a limited set of people in an organization with the knowledge, tools, and experiences to become change leaders.

What Agile Is Not

But let’s break this statement down a bit more. Another way to look at it is in size. Is Agile, in fact, a BIG thing? Like when someone says "Let's do mobile," and mobile IS a BIG thing. Or "Let's branch out into the consumer space," and the consumer space is certainly a BIG thing in any context.

From a personal perspective, I've never seen Agile as a BIG thing, like some monolithic Borg that covers the land in darkness. I would submit that transformations that attempt to achieve that, or work toward that, are the antithesis of Agility.

Agile isn't at all the CxO saying, "We have this business problem. We need to be Agile," or the similar sentiment, "Hey, we're behind our competitors. We need to be Agile. Can you get down to Dunder Mifflin Services and get us some of that Agile stuff?"

Agile isn't the workspace re-design that creates Team seating and lots of wall space to fill with tape and stickies. 

Agile isn't even an Agile Transformation Office, rolling out "transformations" that makes all the project managers become Scrum Masters and builds self-organizing Teams around technical leads that assign all the work to the developers (generally while the QA Team stands around waiting for something to test).

Agile really isn't the daily stand up where each Team member justifies his/her employment since the last meeting and are vague about what they will deliver before the next.

It's not any of those BIG things at all.

So What Is Agile, Really?

It’s a million little things, done without thinking, by motivated, empowered, respected, supported Team members.

Most organizations need help getting from where they are to those million little things. They need assistance ensuring the right people become Scrum Masters. They need help creating self-organizing Teams. They need help ensuring the daily standup (if they do one) is a Team-focused event, as opposed to a status meeting. They need assistance explaining to the CxO the time investment needed to change behaviors and mindsets.

Sometimes they can find this kind of help internally but often they need help from outside change agents. The goal of these change agents, the ones we call Agile Coaches, is to be present, in the moment, with the people who want to become Agile and to highlight the million little opportunities Team members have to decide to apply an Agile principle. This is often in the context of employing a practice and always ties back to a value. It sometimes happens in an exercise in a training session. It rarely happens watching slides in a presentation flip from one to another.

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That's the BIG thing in Agile: making the decision to identify, train, model, support, encourage, recognize, reward, and improve the million little things that will get the CxO the results she wanted when she said, "Let's get going Agile."

It’s likely that this blog entry has generate more questions for you. How do I start? What happens when some people are committed and others aren't? What do we do when some are reluctant to change? These are important questions and we'll be providing some answers in upcoming posts.

If you are ready for an Agile transformation, you can also see where you are on the path to organizational agility with our Enterprise Agile Maturity Matrix, and learn more about Eliassen Group's approach to Agile consulting.